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Monday, December 17, 2018

“To pore it out to you in silence”: the Gold Rush correspondence of William and Mary Monroe

The California Historical Society (CHS) is honored to announce the recent acquisition of fourteen Gold Rush letters, exchanged by William Monroe, a Wisconsin doctor who journeyed to the California gold fields in 1850, and his wife Mary Monroe in Wisconsin. Generously donated to CHS by descendants of the Monroe family, this collection is extraordinary, not only for its well-written and observed documentation of Gold Rush life, but also and especially for its poignant insight into the struggles of a woman left behind to manage the family farm and household while grieving the death of her young child, and for its sad illumination of the emotional and financial hardships Gold Rush-Era family separations inflicted on women as well as men.

William Monroe (1818-1908) was a doctor in Fayette, Wisconsin, who had engaged in lead mining near Mineral Point, Wisconsin, while reading for the medical profession. In 1850, he went to California with a party from Mineral Point, leaving behind his wife Mary Jane Monroe née Beebe (1822-1903) and their two children, John and Harriet. Between 1850 and 1851, William worked as a gold miner and physician in California, while Mary ran the family farm and household in Fayette. The correspondence exchanged by William and Mary between April 1850 and December 1851 reveals two different yet stark realities: the hardships of the overland journey and mining life in California, and William’s deep sense of helplessness and grief upon learning of the death of his son John; and Mary’s struggles to raise a family and manage the farm while enduring illness, loneliness, and unimaginable loss. The medium itself—letters delivered months after they were written and often “miscarried”—is another source of the collection’s poignancy, as William wrote tenderly and hopefully about the couple’s children only a few weeks after Mary penned the heartbreaking letter informing him of John’s death.

The letters speak powerfully for themselves. Below are transcripts from two letters of bereavement: Mary’s letter of May 1, 1851, and William’s reply of September 15, 1851, written in a black letter book.

Mary Monroe letter to William Monroe, 1851 May 1; William and Mary Monroe Correspondence, MS Vault 173; California Historical Society.

Fayette, May the 1, 1851 

Beloved husband, 

I received your kind letter dated Feb 23 on the 22 April, how anxiously I perused those lines written by you, it is the 2 letter I have received from you since your arrival in California, you can imagine the pleasure and consolation your letter was to me, when I relate to you the state of my health and bereavement, I was not able to sit up in bed without assistance when I received it, Dear husband my heart is filled with the deepest emotions of sorrow when I attempt to write that our little son is numbered with the dead, on the 22 of March his spirit left this earth, for that bright home beyond the skies, which he often talked about, I never wanted to see you more in my life, but as the intervening distance will not permit, let us live so as to meet with our little ones in heaven, when I reflect on the Multiplied favours we are constantly receiving from God, my prayer is thy will be done (and not mine) I feel willing to submit to him, who is willing to sustain all those who put their trust in him. I have written 5 letters to you and one to George, I received your letter last Nov dated Sept 20 and answered it immediately about a month after, I wrote to George, John L. had just recovered from an attack of the lung fever in Galena we came home in January I wrote to you again in Feb or March, I then wrote that John had a cough but was in hopes he would be better when warm weather came he was taken with a chill, Tuesday morning, and died on Saturday morning, with inflammation of his lungs, on Sunday he was taken to your Fathers and buried by the side of his little Brother. 
William Monroe letter to Mary Monroe, 1851 Sept 15; William and Mary Monroe Correspondence, MS Vault 173; California Historical Society.

Hopkins Creek, California, Sept 15, 1851

Dear and Affectionate Wife. It is only about six weeks since I wrote to you last a few days after receiving a letter from Father containing the heartrending news of our dear child’s death; when I wrote I could think of nothing but him I said nothing about what I was doing. I am sometimes sorry that I wrote in the state of mind to again fetch up all those tender feelings that probably had been [?] and burned in your bosom but My Dear how could I help it I had no other source to relieve my [?] distracted mind but to pore it out to you in silence even yet the thought of returning and him absent from our happy little circle seems more than I can reconcile or bear to think of all my blasted hopes only makes me realize to what a high I had allowed them to carry me but pardon me for I am now filling this one with that that will only disturb your mind that might otherwise remain at rest but his image is so impressed on my mind that I cannot keep him out of my mind for a moment do not neglect to have your and little Sissy’s Likeness I have received two letters from you one written before his death and one after….

Marie Silva

Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian

Friday, December 14, 2018

In Your Travels: California Historical Society Collections on the Road

CHS on the Road is a series of posts by registrar Cheryl Maslin highlighting CHS collections on loan to other institutions. In your travels, we hope you will be able to visit these exhibitions.

Drawing of Achilles and accompanying Alvord Award Medal with Brooch are on view through February 17, 2019, in Artful Liaisons: Connecting Painters Grace Carpenter, Edward Espey, and Grafton Tyler Brown, Grace Hudson Museum, 431 South Main Street, Ukiah, California.

Grace Carpenter (1865–1937), with twin brother Grant, was born to Helen McCowen, a writer, civic leader, and early educator in Potter Valley, Mendocino County, California. McCowen and her husband, Aurelius Ormando Carpenter, known for his photographs of the early Mendocino railroad, lumber, and shipping industries, operated a portrait photography studio in nearby Ukiah. After showing promise as a child for her drawing skills, Grace began attending the San Francisco School of Design at age fourteen. When she returned home for summer break after her first year, instructor Oscar Kunath (1830–1909, American, b. Germany) wrote her mother, imploring, “I take the liberty as well as pleasure in stating, that she has been one of my best pupils. . . . If she intends choosing Art for her occupation, it is indeed necessary to devote all her time & talent to this high aim in life. . . . Your daughter . . . will soon rise above her classmates by studying very earnestly.”

Portrait of Grace Carpenter. See Footnote 4: Portrait of Grace Carpenter, ca. 1882, is courtesy of the Grace Hudson Museum, City of Ukiah; Acc. # 18361d. 
During her second year at art school, Carpenter won an annual student contest for best classical drawing. The subject for all entrants was a plaster cast of Ares Borghese (ca. 1–2 CE), a Roman marble sculpture in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge, England, considered very difficult to portray in two dimensions. The prize was a medallion named after William Alvord, mayor of San Francisco from 1871 to 1873, and engraved with the contest winner’s name. Carpenter’s medallion was at some point affixed to a brooch with a cat’s-eye shell as a centerpiece, flanked with a leaf motif and a turquoise bead at either end of the pin bar. The drawing and medallion remained in her possession, later passing to her nephew, Mark Carpenter, who, with his wife, gave them to CHS in 1963. They have returned to the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah for this exhibition.
The photograph of Achilles is believed to have been taken prior to the drawing and Alvord Award being given to CHS, with the photographer unknown. The image was used in Searles R. Boynton’s book, The Painter Lady: Grace Carpenter Hudson. Eureka: Interface California Corp., 1978. 

   Courtesy of California Historical Society. Alvord Award, 1881. Maker unknown. Medallion 1 -1/2 inches, diameter; overall dimensions: 3 inches height x 2 -9/16 inches width. Gold, cat’s eye shell, turquoise beads. California Historical Society, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Carpenter.       
In 1890, Carpenter married John Wilz Napier Hudson, who had trained in medicine in Nashville and come to Ukiah to work as a physician. He later became a scholar of Pomo culture and an important collector of their baskets. Grace Carpenter Hudson occupies a significant place in California history due to her lifetime of art production, which includes more than 680 paintings, mostly of Pomo peoples in the region. For more information, please visit

Additional Notes

1. Quotes from Oscar Kunath’s letter are courtesy the Grace Hudson Museum, City of Ukiah; Acc. #2018-1-2. While the letter is not dated, Karen Holmes, curator of collections and exhibitions, believes it was written in the spring of 1880. A Daily Alta newspaper clipping, dated December 24, 1881, and held in the museum’s archives, states that Carpenter had been a student for eighteen months when she received the award. For a brief history of the formation of the San Francisco Art Association and its evolution into today’s San Francisco Art Institute see Betty Hoag McGlynn, “The San Francisco Art Association,” in Plein Air Painters of California, The North, ed. Ruth Lilly Westphal (Irvine, CA: Westphal, 1986), 16–19.

2. The marble Ares Borghese may itself be a copy of an earlier bronze (now lost) from the fifth century BCE. The statue was among 344 antiquities that entered the collections of the Louvre in 1807, via purchase by Emperor Napoleon from Camillo Borghese, Sixth Prince of Sulmona and husband of Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister. In 1884 it transferred to Cambridge University by sale, and its record in the Museum of Classical Archaeology Databases notes that “it may represent Achilles” [the title of Carpenter’s drawing], and that it “has also been recently proposed that the sculpture was a Roman original created through Augustan propaganda to cast Augustus’s heir and grandson, Gaius, as ‘the New Ares.’” The statue’s height is 211 cm, or slightly under seven feet. Hudson’s drawing’s subject has remained identified as Achilles since the contest, although recent research conducted by Marcus and Rosalie Wardell confirms the actual source of the plaster cast.

3. Although unconfirmed at this time, it is possible that the numeral 3, shaped by erasure and located in the lower-right corner of the drawing, may be Carpenter’s entry number. Additionally, while Carpenter was not a trained jeweler, it is highly likely she chose the centerpiece for her brooch and approved its design.

4. The original Portrait of Grace Carpenter may have been taken at her parents’ studio in Ukiah, though the actual photographer is unknown and the tintype does not carry the “Carpenter” mount. The photograph of Achilles is believed to have been taken prior to the drawing and Alvord Award being given to CHS, with the photographer also unknown. The latter was used in Searles R. Boynton, The Painter Lady: Grace Carpenter Hudson (Eureka, CA: Interface California, 1978), 18.

5. Fellow artist and San Francisco–born Henry Percy Gray (1869–1952), also attended the San Francisco School of Design and participated in the contest in 1886. His submission is also in the collection of the California Historical Society, a gift of Dr. and Mrs. W. Scott Polland, 1970.

Art and object collections are available for researchers by inquiry and prearranged appointment through CHS’s North Baker Research Library.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Kicking Off the Holidays With Our 10th Annual Historic Libations

On November 27th, the California Historical Society hosted its 10th annual Historic Libations event at the Old U.S. Mint in San Francisco. This year’s theme was Back to the Future: History of Bay Area Food and Drink Innovation, and focused on local food and drink makers who are building on historic traditions to innovate in their various crafts.

Guests gathered inside the Old Mint’s elegant rooms and corridors, amidst the twinkle of tea lights, to toast and taste, listen to shorty tasty talks from food and drink makers, and enjoy pop-up tours of the Mint’s vaults and historic spaces.

Culinary Historian Erica Peters told stories of innovative tastes from throughout San Francisco history, exploring flavors originating in the Bay Area from cioppino and sourdough bread, to Rice-A-Roni and Pisco punch.


Father and daughter team Amy and Gary Guittard of Guittard Chocolates discussed how, over the last 150 years, their company has made high quality chocolate by melding old world small-batch processing with modern techniques.

Bob Klein of Oliveto and Community Grains spoke on the history of California as a wheat state and how modern wheat production is a blend of innovation in farming, milling, and science with older, more traditional techniques.


Lance Winters of Saint George Spirits explored the ethos of the distillery, which has been at the vanguard of artisan distillation since its founding in 1982.

Susan Coss of Mezcalistas talked about the complicated relationship between California and Mexico as told through agave distillates.


The Buena Vista was on hand to serve up their famous Irish Coffees.

Banda Sin Nombre, a five-piece street band from San Francisco’s Mission District provided an epic evening of folk music from around the world.


The Museum of Craft and Design guided guests to design handmade wooden coasters.

We are grateful to all of our supporters to gathered with us kickstart the holiday season and celebrate the deep history of local food and drink culture at this year’s Historic Libations. We’re already looking forward to next year!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

CHS Names Susan D. Anderson Director of Library, Collections, Exhibitions, and Programs

The California Historical Society has appointed Susan D. Anderson as its new Director of Library, Collections, Exhibitions, and Programs. Anderson comes to CHS from the African American Museum & Library in Oakland, where she has served as Interim Chief Curator for the past year.

Anderson is a third generation Californian who was born at the Presidio in San Francisco, and has studied, lived, and worked throughout the state to increase public understanding of history. She is an expert in American and African American history with focused interest on ethnic, literary, and social justice communities in California.

“We are grateful to have found Susan, whose experience and expertise stood out among a group of exceptional candidates. As a historian, Susan has explored deeply a wide range of diverse communities and social justice movements,” said CHS Executive Director and CEO, Anthea Hartig. “That experience will be invaluable to her future work in acquisition, the development of CHS’s permanent collection, and guidance of our public history programming, with the goal of reflecting the diversity of California and documenting contemporary movements.”

Anderson’s additional professional experience includes working as curator and managing director at UCLA and USC libraries’ special collections, as well as curating a statewide, touring exhibition commemorating the centennial of Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park alongside the California African American Museum. Anderson has one published book of poetry and is working on another book to be published through Heyday Books entitled, “African Americans and the California Dream.” Throughout her decade of experience working in the public history realm, she has lectured at the California State Capitol Museum, the California State Railroad Museum, the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley, the San Francisco Presidio, Richmond Museum of History, and the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, among others.

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the talented, committed staff at the California Historical Society to expand its vision, reach, activities, and success to continue to make history a meaningful part of everyday experience,” Susan Anderson said. “This is truly an honor to be associated with such an esteemed organization that has been a trailblazer in terms of its exhibitions, historical significance and mission.”

In her new role at CHS, Anderson will serve as a key leader to the organization, providing guidance and vision to the North Baker Research Library and the CHS collection, as well as its rotating exhibitions and public programming, in alignment with CHS’s mission and strategic objectives. Critically, she will drive the fulfillment of two primary initiatives in the near future: The assessment of the collection’s needs and future in San Francisco’s Old U.S. Mint as part of an intensive study of that property as CHS’s new home, and the completion of Teaching California, a collaborative project funded by the State of California, designed to offer California K-12 teachers and their students an innovative online collection of teaching resources.

About the California Historical Society: The California Historical Society (CHS) is a non-profit organization with a mission to inspire and empower people to make the state’s richly diverse past a meaningful part of their contemporary lives in order to create a more just and informed future. Founded in 1871, CHS maintains a premier collection of original materials documenting the history of California from the Spanish conquest to the present day. The CHS Collection represents the environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural heritage of the entire state, including materials from outside California that contribute to a greater understanding of the state and its people. Beginning with its founding, and especially since establishing its Yerba Buena District headquarters on Mission Street in 1995, CHS has served residents of the Bay Area, the state, and beyond with its research library, exhibitions, publications, and public educational programs that draw on its important and wide-ranging collections of California history. Today, CHS is embarking on a four-pronged effort to increase its public accessibility, relevance, and impact through innovative and thought-provoking exhibitions; impactful educational programs for youth and adults; expanded programming in Southern California where CHS holds significant collections in partnerships with the Autry National Center and the University of Southern California; and a major digital preservation, management, and access initiative. Importantly, CHS has received a major grant from the State of California to evaluate a relocation to the Old U.S. Mint via a partnership with the City and County of San Francisco. For more information, please visit

Monday, December 3, 2018

In Your Travels: California Historical Society Collections on the Road

CHS on the Road is a series of posts by registrar Cheryl Maslin highlighting CHS collections on loan to other institutions. In your travels, we hope you will be able to visit these exhibitions.

Artifacts from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition are on view in WWI America, currently showing at the Museum of History and Industry, 860 Terry Ave N., Seattle, through February 10, 2019, and coming soon to the Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 Congress Ave., Austin, March 16–August 11, 2019.

Throughout much of 2015 our many visitors at CHS were treated to the exhibition City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair, in commemoration of the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal. The exhibition, which opened February 20 with a grand gala at the Palace of Fine Arts and concluded January 10, 2016, featured numerous images and artifacts from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, some generously provided by lenders, and many sourced from CHS’s own collections.

In 2017, the Minnesota Historical Society borrowed several of these artifacts from CHS for its traveling exhibition WWI America, now installed at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. These include the engraved silver spade made by Shreve & Co. (founded 1852 in San Francisco) used by President William Howard Taft in the groundbreaking ceremony on October 14, 1911, at the Golden Gate Park Polo Fields; a set of five Novagems, a gift of Maria Shoppe Bartee, two of which were on display in the conjunction exhibition at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts in 2015; and opening- and closing-day badges, the latter of which once belonged to five-year-old Albert Couderc, a gift of Marie Couderc.

Image courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, WA
Also featured in WWI America are four candlestick-style telephones that CHS borrowed for its show from the AT&T Archives and History Center. The phones were used in the first transcontinental conference call on January 25, 1915, between Alexander Graham Bell in New York; his former assistant, Thomas Watson, located at 333 Grant Avenue in San Francisco; Theodore Vail, president of AT&T, seated inside the Jekyll Island Club off the coast of Georgia; and President Woodrow Wilson, at the White House in Washington, DC.

Following its successful exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society (now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture) in Richmond, which saw some thirty-five thousand visitors, WWI America is now on view at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle through February 10, 2019. For more information, visit The show will then travel to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, where it will be on view March 16 through August 11, 2019. See

Monday, November 26, 2018

10 California shipwreck sites that can still be seen today!

Of the photos in our newly opened exhibition, Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco, one of the images I find most striking is a mammoth plate panorama by Carlton Watkins documenting the San Francisco Bay from Nob Hill. Beyond the growing neighborhood of clapboard homes stretching out from the photographer’s foreground, we are able to view the low lying intertidal area that is now San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Several wooden schooners are anchored just offshore, likely moored after voyages across the Pacific, up from Cape Horn, or south from Alaska.

Those anchored ships are what strike me most about the image; they serve as the most tangible indicator of how far technology and transportation have evolved since the photo was taken. However, through all of that evolution, seafaring has remained beholden to the whims of the ocean and its conditions. Throughout history, fog, large swells, storms, and navigational errors regularly contributed to vessels wrecking themselves on California’s beaches, cliffs, and unanticipated offshore rocks. While some of these wrecked ships were salvaged or stripped, many still remain in place. Below is a list of ships, many en route between California’s largest ports in San Francisco and Los Angeles, that can still be viewed along California’s coast. These sites are best visited at very low tides when the wreckage is most exposed, and, as always, please use caution when exploring unfamiliar marine environments.

1. SS Monte Carlo, Coronado Island, San Diego County:
The 1920s oil tanker was converted into a floating casino. In its heyday, the Monte Carlo floated off of Coronado Island, taking advantage of a legal loophole that allowed for gambling and prostitution so long as the ship was moored at least 3 miles off shore in international waters. A storm on New Year’s Day in 1937 ripped the ship from its mooring, depositing it on Coronado Island. Given the illicit nature of the ship, no one laid claim to it, and the Monte Carlo hasn’t moved since!

2. SS Dominator, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Los Angeles County:
The freighter was traveling to Los Angeles from Vancouver with a cargo of wheat and beef. Never making it to the port, Dominator ran aground on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on March 13, 1961. Due to large surf and challenging weather, the Coast Guard was unable to pull the ship off the rocks and the crew were forced to abandon the stranded vessel. Dominator can be viewed at the base of the Palos Verdes Estate’s cliffs at low tide.

3. La Jenelle, Silver Strand Beach, Ventura County:
Built in 1931, the 400-foot cruise liner was on the market to be sold when a storm buffeted the ship ashore at Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard in 1970. After leaving her to sit for several weeks, the US Navy decided to remove the top of the ship and fill La Jenelle with rocks to provide an extension to the end of the Port Hueneme breakwater.

4. SS Winfield Scott, Anacapa Island, Ventura County:
The steamship was owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, one of the two primary steamship companies connecting the East and West Coasts during the California Gold Rush. Winfield Scott left San Francisco bound for Panama on December 1, 1853 loaded with over 300 passengers and $1 million in gold. The captain, Simon Blunt, decided to travel through the Santa Barbara channel to save time. However, dense morning fog disoriented Blunt and lead him to prematurely steer the ship south east. Windfield Scott crashed into a rock lying off Anacapa Island at full speed and sustained 2 holes to the bow. Passengers and crew were forced to abandon ship and camp on Anacapa for a week before being rescued. The Winfield Scott now lies in shallow water off the island in the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary, and over the years several sets of treasure seekers have searched the ship for gold and other valuable metals.

5. Barge, Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge, Monterey County:
A barge was blown ashore in a 1983 storm. After the owners were unable to remove the ship, it was left to rust on the beach. The barge is fully exposed on the beach, and it can be accessed by walking 1.5 miles north from the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge.

6. The Sir John Franklin, Ano Nuevo State Reserve, San Mateo County:
The clipper ship was headed to San Francisco when it became emerged in heavy fog and crashed into rocks on January 17, 1965. The collision destroyed the ship and killed the captain and 11 crew members. The crew members were buried at the adjacent beach, which is now known as Franklin’s Point. In 1980, dune erosion led to the exposure of the buried sailors and archaeologists from San Jose State and Sonoma State Universities subsequently excavated the burials. The researchers discovered the remains of other burials, indicating the fatal history of ships grounding themselves at Franklin’s Point. Today, you can visit a platform located at the end of the point and take in the perilous rocks.

7. King Philip, Ocean Beach, San Francisco County:
The clipper ship was dragged into the surf line at Ocean Beach in January of 1878. The ship has remained in place since then, being battered by constant heavy surf. Surprisingly, it is still possible to view the wreck at a low tide and when storms have shifted sands off of the wreck. In order to view the wreck, plan to visit Ocean Beach at a minus tide and plot these coordinates into your phone or other GPS device: 37.751517, -122.509846. 

8. The Lyman A. Stewart, Ohian, and Frank H. Buck, Land’s End, San Francisco County:
The Lyman A. Stewart ran aground at Land’s End while rounding the bay entrance into the Golden Gate in 1922. The Ohian crashed nearby, north of Point Lobos and the Sutro Baths in 1936, and the Frank H. Buck befell the same fate, crashing into Land’s End in 1938. The Lyman A. Stewart and Frank H. Buck were subsequently blasted apart with dynamite, but pieces of all three ships can still be viewed from the Coastal Trail at Mile Rock Beach at Land’s End in San Francisco.

9. SS Tennessee, Mill Valley, Marin County:
The passenger ship was one of the earliest ships to run aground while trying to enter the Golden Gate, crashing into the Marin coastline in 1853. All of the ship’s passengers, and its cargo of 14 chests of gold were all saved, but the Tennessee could not be salvaged. The beach where the vessel landed subsequently became Tennessee Cove, and it is still possible to see parts of the rusting engine lying on the beach.

10. USS Milwaukee, Samoa, Humboldt County:
In January of 1917, the Navy cruiser USS Milwaukee was sent to Samoa beach, near Eureka, to rescue a Naval submarine that had run aground. Unfortunately, the Milwaukee couldn’t withstand an onslaught of wind and waves and became beached itself. The crew was all saved and the ship scrapped for parts, though some rusting parts of the ship still protrude from the water. The remnants can be found near the Milwaukee Memorial, at the intersection of New Navy Base Road and Samoa Pulp Lane.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Forty Years After Jonestown, Letting the Poisons Disperse

Archives are full of poisons. I used to work in the archives of a medical hospital where we kept a jar for making radium water, and where someone once casually sent my boss a bag of insulation pads dusty with old asbestos. But even without drugs and decaying industrial matter, many materials become dangerous as they age. Archivists can tell that old film is dangerously deteriorating by its distinctive smell of vinegar (actually corrosive acetic acid), and many plastics start to off-gas and turn brittle within a human lifetime.

The materials in the collection we’re processing right now—Peoples Temple photographs and documents—are no exception. Some photo negatives have turned acidic, and most of the rest are encased in fragile plastic which in the worst cases is permanently stuck to the images underneath.

We can avert this decay by putting the photos into new, safer plastic sleeves. This is how we will spend the first few weeks of our time with these twenty thousand images: carefully cutting apart brittle plastic to rescue the photos and give them safe homes.

In the context of the Peoples Temple, I see this as powerfully symbolic of what archivists do. We are removing the poison from the collection. We are making it safe for people to look at. Trauma is radioactive—it has a half-life—but by taking these slides from their rusted paperclips and decaying binders, we can clean up the damaged soil so that something can grow again.

Man and boy welding, Jonestown, circa 1977-1978], Photographs of Peoples Temple in the United States and Guyana, PC 010, California Historical Society.

What do I hope will grow? Personally, I hope that these images will present a broader image of the Temple than the usual tight focus on Jim Jones. These photographs were taken and compiled by the Temple’s Publications Department, so there’s quite a bit here that was intended to honor Jones, but they also show the rank upon rank of passionate, intelligent people who felt inspired by the Temple to be their best selves. Bus trips, ecstatic church services, the first joyous work on the utopian colony of Jonestown—these images show us Temple life outside of the rusty and jagged boundaries of Jones’ mind, even as he was already planning on some level for the ultimate act of control.

Many of the photos are of marginalized people, especially the African Americans who were inspired by the charged Temple atmosphere to build a new world in Guyana. The most familiar images of Jonestown are of corpses. In these images, we see living people, idealists who had stories to tell that weren’t about Jones, and who were able to empower themselves with the stories he told—about faith, about politics. 

Young Peoples Temple members resting on bus trip, possibly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Photographs of Peoples Temple in the United States and Guyana, PC 010, California Historical Society 
He betrayed them, of course. He weaponized appropriation, he played on the despair of marginalized people but stole their hope for himself, and he talked without listening. What I hope to do, by rescuing these photos from their poisonous clothing, is to create an archive of images that reverses those sentences: “They were betrayed, of course. Their faith and their despair and their hope was stolen, was appropriated. They were spoken to and never listened to.” Reversing a sentence this way makes it less grammatical, but sometimes more honest. In the search for reparative justice, the object—the person who is made an object by another—is more important than the subject.

Let’s not forget Jones. We know what he thought about those who forget history; that was one of his late lucid moments. But let’s remember something bigger, something airier, something that lets the poison disperse into a more generous sky. Let’s remember Christine Miller, who passionately protested the killings at Jonestown, and who once faced down a gun-wielding Jones by saying, “You can shoot me, but you will respect me.” Let’s remember Ever Rejoicing, former follower of Father Divine, who lived for ninety-seven years before dying (not “only to die”) at Jonestown. Let’s remember the survivors—Monika Bagby, Christopher Keith O’Neal, Al and Jeannie Mills—who lived past 1978, but did not live long lives. And of course, let’s listen to the survivors who did, like Yulanda D.A. Williams, who electrified us on November 7th (when CHS hosted a panel discussion exploring the complex ways Peoples Temple was interconnected with and influenced by social, cultural, and political movements occurring at the time of its existence) with her testimony about cultism in America. Let’s listen to what the victims and the survivors have said. Let’s release the poison.
This blog was written by Isaac R. Fellman, CHS's Project Archivist to the Peoples Temple collection

The processing of this collection was made possible by funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Visual Prototyping Helps Guide a Team in Unlocking California’s History for Classrooms Across the State

Recently, the California Historical Society had the pleasure of bringing on Navigation North as the firm that will help develop the website for our new Teaching California initiative. This future website will serve as a portal that provides classroom-ready curriculum designed to engage students in inspiring investigations of the past. Navigation North's team of educators and developers work with technology to re-imagine and re-design:

  • How teachers can be better supported in their practice 
  • How student learning, in and out of class, can be improved 
  • How education systems can be more readily adopted to integrate innovation

The following blog is written by Brian Ausland, Navigation North's principal researcher and systems design lead. He has worked in the field of education for 19 years and serves as the intermediary between the technology and learning communities he supports. He brings his classroom experience and teaching perspectives central to all systems, projects, and approaches.


Navigation North traveled to San Francisco to do some early-stage visual prototyping with the California Historical Society team. In the heart of the CHS research center, amongst transitioning exhibitions, offices bustling with varied expertise and passion, and a blend of artwork and manuscripts that shape the history of the Golden State, a small room was set aside for a day of thinking and dreaming.

On the horizon for this team, is a new and vibrant site being prepared for California classroom teachers and students that will help provide key curriculum and resources tied to California’s new History – Social Science Framework.

With an audience of primary source specialists, curators, digital archivists and manuscript librarians, Navigation North led a reflective review of key findings around effective,research-based digital curriculum. Teams were then provided a chance to dream, design, and create. But first, we turned off the laptops, silenced our phones and broke out the crafts.
California Historical Society's Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian, Marie Silva, creating visual prototypes.
What was a respectable meeting room adorned with handsome, historical portraits from California’s past, became a free-for-all of poster paper, markers, yarn, crayons, sample artifacts, clothes pins, pipe cleaner, clay, common interface buttons, scissors, tape, and glue. With some guidance, discussions began on the topic of intentions, values, and calibration around common desired outcomes. Team members reviewed findings on teachers’ use of digital curriculum and reflected on the value of primary sources as keys to unlocking history, then engaged in creating prototype models that blended all of the above.

Once complete, participating team members posted their visual prototypes where their colleagues could make inquiries about their designs, discuss features, and proposed ways to help teachers and students, “analyze the primary source for its story”. Participants were asked to identify their favorite elements of each other’s designs. Navigation North staff recorded the data, captured pictures, and carefully collected all the resulting work items to bring back for further analysis and compilation of findings.

Staff from California Historical Society reviewing ideas for the Teaching California website.
As part of the Discovery Process, this was a simple first step towards helping diverse team members construct a more comprehensive and shared conceptual approach to a robust, digital, curricular resource. With additional steps pending, we were happy to see the team readily dig-in and engage the process. Stay tuned as this adept team crafts an incredible product to help bring more voices to the story of California’s past.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sears and the Demise of Middle-Class San Francisco

Few retail industry experts were surprised by Sears’ bankruptcy filing last month. Once America’s leading retailer, the 125-year-old business has been in steep decline lately, taking on unsustainable debt and shuttering underperforming stores. In the main, Sears’ decline is a parable – a familiar one for a while now -- of the fate of brick-and-mortar stores in the age of Amazon. But, in San Francisco, the decline of Sears is also a window into the lost era of middle-class San Francisco.

Sears was a major institution in San Francisco since it opened its flagship store at Army (Cesar Chavez Street since 1995) and Mission in 1929. “We feel sure that our entry into San Francisco,” Sears boasted in a full-page advertisement in the San Francisco Call, “will be welcomed in the friendly spirit always manifested by one of the greatest cities in the world.” And, indeed, it was: Sears soon became the commercial hub of the Mission District, employing about 250 full time, unionized, workers. But in 1975, the Mission Sears closed its doors. The store had been roiled by an eight-month strike, but there was more going on beneath the surface, as a Sears spokesman told the New York Times: “We weren’t competitive here with the convenient suburban malls.” Indeed, the expansion of suburbs in the East and South Bay challenged San Francisco’s regional retail dominance, and the Mission Sears paid the price. Furthermore, the largescale movement of generally-low income Latin American immigrants into the Mission significantly diminished local purchasing power.

Sears, Roebuck & Company, Geary Boulevard and Masonic Avenue, August 1964. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. 
Meanwhile, San Francisco’s second Sears lumbered onward. Opened in 1951 at Geary and Masonic in the Anza Vista neighborhood, it quickly became Northern California’s biggest Sears. It outlived the Mission store by fifteen years but in 1990, it closed because of sluggish sales and the high cost of essential building maintenance. The closures of both stores resulted in the loss of about 500 blue collar jobs in San Francisco.

But more broadly, the closure of those stores represented the end of an era in San Francisco in which a significant proportion of San Franciscans still worked with their hands, and in which few product names commanded more respect than Craftsman, first launched by Sears in 1927. Known principally for its American-made ratchets, wrenches, and sockets, Craftsman became a household name in households where manual work prevailed. The American steel used by Craftsmen compared favorably to the “soft steel” used by many Chinese tool makers beginning in the late 1980s which was infamous for its weakness.

I was born in 1972, at the tail end of this era, and raised in a small rent-controlled apartment in the Sunset District, where my mother still lives. The Sears at Masonic was important to my family, and not just because of the Icee’s and popcorn that my father would occasionally buy me. It was important because that is where you bought the best tools to get the job done. In 1990, just as the Masonic store was closing, my father and I built a roof rack for our 1983 Toyota Tercel in order to cart my luggage off to freshman year at UC Davis. We used Craftsman sockets, 1 x 4 boards from the local lumber company (long since replaced by a condominium complex), and we changed the oil and filter ourselves with a Craftsman wrench. 

Sears, Roebuck & Company Store, Army and Mission Streets. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. 
Since 2010, most Craftsman tools have been manufactured in China and Taiwan. Happily, the brand has retained it famous durability as Chinese manufacturing has improved, and today Craftsman remains the official tool of NASCAR and the DIY Network. When my father died in 2016, I inherited his Craftsman tools and I am teaching my own son and daughter to use them properly, even though they will not likely need them to prosper. For as many services are now available at the touch of an app, there is still a virtue in knowing how to fix a thing yourself.

Written by Josh Sides, Editor of California History.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Jack London’s Flask

Jack London had two sides. Lacking the cultural capital of connections, the author learned early on that a successful literary career could be bolstered by the symbolic capital of celebrity status. Through his stories and publicity photographs, London shrewdly marketed his authorial persona as that of both the rugged sailor and the posh intellectual, appealing to Victorian America’s fascination with wilderness—and its attention to propriety.

We can see this dual persona expressed in a famous photograph of London sitting at the helm of one of his boats (most likely the Roamer), holding what appears to be a magazine (fig. 1). The pen in his right hand is perched delicately between his fingers like a cigarette; his leather jacket is glossy and sumptuous, with ripples of sunlight zigzagging up his arms like eels. London’s stiff collar mirrors the mop of windswept hair that reaches down his forehead, drawing our eyes toward his gentle yet thoughtful expression. The photograph encapsulates all that we wish to remember about London: the improbable simultaneity of the oyster pirate and the man of letters, neatly packaged as the handsome and affable writer known as Jack London.

Photographer unknown, [Jack London on board the Roamer], ca. 1914. Gelatin silver print. Sonoma County Library.
I was reminded of London’s split celebrity in my first week here at the California Historical Society, when my colleague Cheryl Maslin surprised me with a treasure: Jack London’s flask, likely given to him by his friend, the poet George Sterling (fig. 2). Holding the flask in my hands, I could feel the two Jacks come through in its variable textures. On the upper half, a layer of orange and black snakeskin hugs the circumference, its raised scales feeling warm to the touch. On the bottom, the tarnished silver base is cold and smooth save for the neatly engraved inscription (“Jack London, from a loving friend”) and the wave-like pattern carved onto a collar separating the two halves of the flask. To hold it in your hands is to feel both hemispheres—warm and cold, rippled and smooth, connected somehow by those undulating waves.
Jack London's flask, 1907. Sterling Silver, snakeskin, and glass. California Historical Society, Gift of Albert Bender.
In his book Martin Eden (1909), London tells the story of a young man who attempts to overcome his working-class roots through self-education, eventually becoming a successful writer in the San Francisco literary scene. It’s easy to be tempted by the parallels between Martin Eden’s rise and London’s own biography, and many have, using the final scene of the novel in which Eden commits suicide by drowning as one piece of evidence that London himself died by suicide and not kidney failure (as was recorded on his death certificate). The scene is chilling; London describes Eden’s body bobbing in the water like a buoy, split into halves not unlike the snakeskin flask:

“He glanced up at the quiet stars, at the same time emptying his lungs of air. With swift, vigorous propulsion of hands and feet, he lifted his shoulders and half his chest out of water…Then he let himself go and sank without movement, a white statue, into the sea…He seemed floating languidly in a sea of dreamy vision. Colors and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and pervaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain—a flashing, bright white light.”

Here, London uses the metaphor of a “bright white light” to connote death and dying, as Eden slowly sinks and allows the seawater fills his lungs. But the light provides a different metaphorical significance in the first chapter of the book, when Eden encounters his first oil painting in the home of a wealthy neighbor:

“The lines of [Eden’s] face hardened, and into his eyes came a fighting light. He looked about more unconcernedly, sharply observant, every detail of the pretty interior registering itself on his brain. His eyes were wide apart; nothing in their field of vision escaped; and as they drank in the beauty before them the fighting light died out and a warm glow took its place. He was responsive to beauty, and here was cause to respond. An oil painting caught and held him.”

As Martin Eden is drawn in by the painting—which is, prophetically, a painting of a schooner on stormy seas—the “fighting light” with which his eyes probe the canvas is gradually replaced by the “warm glow” of its intoxicating beauty. In this early scene, London asks his reader to consider the differences between these two modes of reading or looking: you can come to the work like a soldier on the defense, or let the work come to you and wash over you like a wave. As I hold Jack London’s flask, it, like the painting, seems to hold me back, suspending me in my knowledge that the author once held it and used it. Ultimately, a curator’s research relies on both sides of this coin. It’s our job to be dutiful, conducting research with the “fighting light” of a critical eye. But it’s also important to be willing to succumb to the magic of looking and of feeling, to spend time with a piece and allow it to “speak” for itself. To be like the silver, but also like snakeskin.

By Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at CHS.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Staff Picks: Pamphlet from the German Austro-Hungarian Bazaar by German Women of San Francisco

The CHS collections comprise a diverse body of materials which document the environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural heritage of California and contribute to a greater understanding of the state and its people.

For this year’s American Archives Month, we asked a few of our Exhibitions and Library & Archives department staff members to choose a piece (or collection) from the CHS archive, and to interpret it in their own word, or describe why it’s meaningful to them. This week, Will Murdoch, CHS' Cataloger, explores a commemorative pamphlet and lecture from the German Austro-Hungarian Bazaar organized by German women of San Francisco:

Vortragsfolge. Deutscher und Oesterreichisch-Ungarischer Basar veranstaltet von deutschen Frauen zu San Francisco, Cal., U.S.A. 9-10-11 December 1914 
The most surprising thing about this pamphlet from our collection is that it still exists at all.  Let me describe it. Published in December 1914, this document appears to be a program for a San Francisco
fundraising festival (“basar”), put on in support of the troops of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The local German-American societies (“helping committees”), including the Hungarian Society, planned fundraisers to supply aid to wounded troops, widows, and orphans of their “old country” early on during the Great War. The pamphlet above requests assistance and aid for wounded soldiers and includes portraits of German and Austro-Hungarian generals alongside heroic-looking troops.

The document is written completely in German with the exception of one page which is in English and shows a portrait of Woodrow Wilson and a quote about how America must stay neutral during the European conflict.

It was early on in the war and pre-May 1915 when Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare, started using poison gas, and launched Zeppelin bombings of civilians. In December 1914, German-Americans in San Francisco could still help their old country and while also being patriotic Americans. That would change the following year when public support of Germany began to be seen in a much different light. After May 1915, pro-German support and printed materials, like this pamphlet, would have been unpopular and, by 1917, even treasonous. Relations between immigrant groups and their countries of origin remain complex to this day and this unique piece from our archive can serve to remind us how quickly loyalty and public opinion can change.  After May 1915, many German-Americans in San Francisco would have wanted to suppress the evidence found within the pamphlet, making this a rare find indeed.

Later …American anti-German propaganda:

Destroy this Mad Brute -- Enlist, ca. 1917, Harry R. Hopps (American 1869-1937), Color lithograph, Louis and Jodi Atkin Family Collection, Modern Graphic History Library, Washington University Libraries

Written by Will Murdoch, Cataloger at California Historical Society.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Staff Picks: Highlights from the CHS Collection for American Archives Month

Every October the American archival community celebrates American Archives Month in order to celebrate and raise awareness of the value of archives, archivists, and the diverse collections in repositories across the country representing our collective history.

The CHS collections comprises a diverse body of materials which document the environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural heritage of California and contribute to a greater understanding of the state and its people. The collection includes:
  • 50,000 volumes of books and pamphlets 
  • 4,000 manuscript collections; 
  • 500,000 photographs; 
  • Printed ephemera, periodicals, posters, broadsides, maps, and newspapers; 
  • The Kemble Collection on Western Printing and Publishing; 
  • 5,000 works of art, including paintings, drawings, and lithographs; 
  • Artifacts and costumes 
For this year’s American Archives Month, we asked a few of our Exhibitions and Library & Archives department staff members to choose a piece (or collection) from the CHS archive, and to interpret it in their own word, or describe why it’s meaningful to them. First up is Jaime Henderson, CHS’ Digital Archivist, who chose 1930s images of Los Vaqueros lands.

Images of Los Vaqueros lands

From Horse Pasture Hill looking W. toward Black Hills across Dario Place, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_12, California Historical Society

A man wearing jodhpur pants tucked into high boots leans against an outcropping of rocks, possibly a walking stick or telescope gripped in his hand, gazing onto a valley dotted with low trees, dark hills and an even darker sky looming in the background. Another image shows a low mountain range in the distance, gnarled, leafless oak trees in the foreground. Like many great California landscapes scenes shot by well-known photographers, the image is well-composed and captures the natural exquisiteness and moodiness of the state’s terrain. But unlike Yosemite or Big Sur, the landscape, although stunning, is not obviously identifiable. That is until I take a closer look at the caption which provides such preciseness of place. The caption contains a series of letters and numbers that I am able to identify as surveyor coordinates. Names of places such as Black Hills, Brushy Peak and the surnames of landowners, Dario and Cabral provide a few more clues. Eventually, I piece together that the land is a rural valley situated in eastern Contra Costa county and portions of northeast Alameda County. The region today looks remarkably similar to the landscape captured in the photographs years ago.

The photographs shown here are only four examples of a collection of twenty-five platinum prints held in the archives of the California Historical Society. The collection, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands of Contra Costa and Alameda counties, records both visually and geographically, this pastoral parcel of land situated in the shadow of Mount Diablo toward the northwest and flanked by low, grassland hills to the east and the rugged Black Hills to the west. Although the photographer is unknown, the captions, most of which include geographic coordinates, suggest that the photographs were taken as part of a surveying project of the Los Vaqueros lands, most likely undertaken in the mid-1930s as ownership of the lands passed from their much-revered owner Mary Crocker to family members and friends after her death. The time period in which the photographs were taken marks the beginning of drastic change to the communities built in Los Vaqueros, although this change is not reflected in the region’s natural landscape capture in the photographs.

Inside caves near Brushy Peak, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935. PC-026_01, California Historical Society

The first Californians deeply understood the majesty of what would come to be called Los Vaqueros. Archeologists have found evidence of human activity in the region dating back nearly 10,000 years, making Los Vaqueros lands one of California’s earliest known sites of human activity. For centuries, groups made long-term use of the land for hunting, occupation, and community building. Before the arrival of the Spanish to the greater Bay Area and Delta region, the Volvon peoples of the Miwok tribe and the Ssaoam peoples of the Costanoan tribe seasonally hunted, gathered, traded and lived in communities in what would become Los Vaqueros.

The land's natural features, most especially the caves and outcroppings of rocks located in the most eastern part of the region, are described in the Native Californians' creation myths where Coyote, in deep grief over the loss of his son, walks through the sandstone walls creating the holes and gorges of the Vasco Caves (1). Many of the Native Californians' creation stories were depicted in rock art on the walls of the Vasco Caves. As it was when the Native peoples inhabited the land, the land is still considered sacred among Native Californian groups and the pictographs are still visible on the caves' canvases. 

North side of lake, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_08, California Historical Society

In the years following the founding of Mission San Jose in 1797, large herds of cattle belonging to the mission were grazed in the Los Vaqueros lands, introducing the practice of large-scale livestock ranching to the region. The practice continued once the land was granted to three brothers-in-law and officially named Cañada de los Vaqueros (Valley of the Cowboys) in 1844. The region’s excellent pastures gave rise to battles over grazing rights and litigation over the ownership of lands throughout the second-half of the 19th century. Through these disputes practice of large scale grazing continued, taking effect on the landscape, spreading non-native grasses eroding natural drainage and impacting native tree species (R to R, pg. 8). Ranching on the lands only began to phase out in the mid-1870s as the land grant began to be subdivided into smaller tenant farms and ranches, prompting a shift that incorporated grain cultivation with livestock ranching. The introduction of a more diverse agriculture and immigrant families of German, Italian, French and Basque descent helped to transition Los Vaqueros from a valley of isolated, ranching cowboys to a community of family farms that developed out of their reliance on shared skills, resources and crops. The transition marks both a natural change for the region, but also the development of a communal identity amongst the Los Vaqueros residents. Between 1900 and 1935 the Los Vaqueros community, geographically isolated from the social and civic changes occurring in the greater Bay Area, created network of multicultural residents that relied on each other for economic, social, and emotional support.

Much can be said in regards to the stability of land ownership in Los Vaqueros to facilitate the growth of community spirit. Most residents were tenant farmers who rented that land from Mary Crocker. Crocker may not have spent much time on the land, but had hired the much admired Charles Lamberton to manage the tenant holdings. The pair provided a sense of stability that allowed tenants to invest in the land and commit to its community. In 1918, while the land was under Crocker’s ownership, an article printed in the Byron Times praised the rolling hills and valleys of Los Vaqueros “one of the most beautiful pastoral spots of the Golden State.” (2)

The long-lasting effects of the economic Depression of 1929, coupled with the untimely death of Mary Crocker in an automobile accident brought about an end to many of the tenant family farms and community oriented existence of Los Vaqueros. Crocker’s heirs sold the land and new owners did not uphold many of the lease agreements with the tenant farmers who had helped build the Los Vaqueros community (3). Some of the land had remained in the hands of its original owners who had acquired it in the later part of the 19th century, but by the 1960s and 1970s much of the Los Vaqueros lands had been returned to grazing pastures.

From hill looking across Stanley Cabral’s grain field toward Black Hills, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_17, California Historical Society 

Today the land, located in the Diablo Range in the shadow of Mount Diablo, is sheltered from the crush of Interstate 580 cutting through the Livermore Valley moving thousands of commuters to and from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta communities and the San Francisco Bay Area and the ever-developing suburban housing tracts that sprawl further and further into the deep east of the East Bay. Two major civic initiatives have protected the land from the encroachment of development and have allowed the land to retain its pastoral beauty that had earlier been celebrated in the Byron Times. In 1988 Contra Costa county voters approved funding for the Contra Costa County Water District’s (CCWD) Los Vaqueros Reservoir project.

The reservoir was completed in 1998 and was expanded in 2012, growing its capacity to provide water for over 500,000 customers while also protecting the natural and historic resources located in the watershed (4). The CCWD has also partnered with East Bay Regional Park District to steward the Vasco Caves Regional Preserve, providing protection to both endangered and native species and plants of the Los Vaqueros region and preserving sacred native California sites, including the 10,000 year old rock art found on the walls of Vasco Caves depicting the creation myths that took place on the Los Vaqueros lands.

This post was written by Jaime Henderson, Digital Archivist at the California Historical Society.


(1) Ziesing, Grace H. ed., From Rancho to Reservoir: History and Archaeology of the Los Vaqueros Watershed, California. Report prepared for the Contra Costa Water District (1997), 19.
(2) Byron Times, (1918), 58.
(3) Ziesing, From Rancho to Reservoir, (1917), 124. 
(4) Los Vaqueros Project History. Contra Costa Water District. Retrieved 2018 March 14 from